Visceral. Dreamlike. Violent. These are a few of the words I scribbled in my notebook in the first minutes of Doug Chan’s latest film, The Last Roar of a Mother Bear. Reviewer Shelly Kraicer describes the film as “one of the strangest murder-mystery black-comic art-horror-thrillers of the year.” While I found this description baffling at first, I could not help but think, as the lights came up in the theater, this was exactly what the film delivered.
The film opens by depicting two murders in Macau prior to its transfer from Portugal to China. The first murder happens in 1979; the second in 1990. The victim of the 1990 murder – killed silently on the day of her wedding – was present as a child at the first murder, as was the detective tasked with investigating her death. The mother of the bride returns to the home where the 1979 murder took place in search of answers, and has a fateful encounter with the detective. With this plot device, Chan makes a point about the inescapable grip of the past on the present and the inevitable return of suppressed memories. As the characters begin to unravel the falsehood of their recollections, they reveal the actual nature of the murders to the audience.
Like in his earlier film – the internationally-acclaimed Love is Not a Sin – Chan confidently cultivates a sense of confusion and discomfort in the audience. This serves the film’s ultimate purpose. The film drags the viewer along for the ride as it explores the fragility of human memory and perception. Just as characters in the film grapple with the authenticity of their memories; the audience is left to sort out what is real from what is imagined. Some of the film’s most violent scenes, for example, are clearly shown not to have happened at all but are simply the intrusive thoughts of the characters. The film makes a point about human experience not just in the content it conveys but also through the manner in which it is conveyed.
The Last Roar of a Mother Bear puts the audience on edge early and sustains a nervous tension throughout. Tactile sounds like the crunching of glass, the scratching of paper or the cutting of skin, masterfully sustain a level of general unease. Chan is a director who doesn’t mind making the viewer squirm and that is on full display.
It is worth noting the Last Roar of a Mother Bear was originally produced as one of three short films that comprise Macau Stories 3, a series commissioned by Cut Audio-Visual Association of Macau. The three-part series bills itself as an unconventional portrayal of human dramas unfolding underneath the city’s prosperous veneer. However, that thematic element – prosperity – seems distinctly lacking in contrast to the other two films. The choice of pre-handover Macau as a setting goes some way to explain this tone.
Over the course of the film’s plot, uncertainty and ambiguity were defining characteristics of Macau’s status. The city was nominally controlled by a Portuguese colonial administration, with the People’s Republic of China claiming underlying sovereignty and wielding tremendous de facto influence over the city’s affairs. Meanwhile, Portugal reeling from an abrupt and violent process of decolonization elsewhere in the world, adopted a posture of indifference towards the city’s final disposition. Many contemporary scholars allege Portugal offered to transfer Macau to the PRC several times in the 1970’s but that Beijing preferred the status quo of a nominally Portuguese-administered city heavily influenced by China. At the same time, the machinations of the PRC foreclosed the possibility of self-determination by successfully removing Macau from the UN list of colonized territories. During this time, therefore, Macau was in a jurisdictional limbo caught between two powers – one ascendant, one declining – both of which made some claim to the city, but neither of which was sufficiently motivated to act decisively on its claims. Antonio Coimbra Martins, a Portuguese diplomat involved in the transfer, writes in his memoir that both Portugal and China were mutually satisfied to consider Macau “a problem left over from history.”
The film’s atmosphere conveys a sense of this reality. Instead of prosperity, The Last Roar of a Mother Bear positively exudes grittiness, dreariness, anxiety, and uncertainty. Perhaps, the ambiguity of the events portrayed on screen is an allegory of Macau’s tentative status during this period. Martins’ description of Macau as “a problem left over from history” could equally serve as an alternate title for the film, and an apt description of what it is the protagonists are struggling with. There is a case to made that this movie is about more than meets the eye.
In sum, The Last Roar of a Mother Bear is a tremendously engaging and challenging film; an open mind and unconventional tastes help it go down smoothly.